Thomas Laqueur: What is the Work of the Dead?

Diogenes the Cynic, the dog philosopher, told his disciples that he wanted his dead body thrown over the walls of the city. They objected that he would be eaten by beasts and picked at by birds. “True,” he said, and agreed to be left unburied with a stick in his hands to keep away predators. “But you will be dead and won’t know that they are molesting your corpse,” they replied. “True,” he said, “and that is why it makes no difference what happens to my body.”

Over the millennia many people have thought that Diogenes had a point but no culture has ever acted on his argument. Antigone’s voice is the one we – or in any case we humans when we are not trying to dehumanize others – hear. Care for the dead is among the “unwavering, unwritten customs of the gods…not some trifle of now or yesterday, but for all eternity.” In this talk, Thomas Laqueur explores why Antigone is right, and what work the unfeeling dead body does for the living.

Laqueur is the Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley. He specializes in the cultural history of the body, and in the history of humanitarianism and of popular religion and literacy. His books include Work of the Dead; Solitary Sex; Making Sex; Religion and Respectability; and, in progress, a short history of humanitarianism and a book about dogs in Western art. He writes for the London Review of Books and was a founding editor of the journal Representations. He received a Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award, which he used to commission and write a libretto for an opera based on Jose Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions; as well as to support projects on human rights, religion, and science studies. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society.

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